A Winnipeg senior said he was fooled into thinking he was dealing with the Canadian government when he clicked on a site about renewing passport applications.
In fact, he was dealing with a private company that has no authorization to approve or deny passports at all.
Sam Bebchuk, 88, discovered his passport expired in December after his daughter had booked him an upcoming flight to North Carolina. The trip was only a few weeks away so he needed to renew his travel documents right away.
"I didn't renew a passport before. This is the first time so I went online and the first thing I saw was 'PassportOnline', and it says it'll help you do it," said Bebchuk. "It had a little maple leaf in the corner. It really looked like a government form."
Believing he was on an official government website, Bebchuk answered all the questions on the screen and paid $206.45 for a passport over the phone.
"They say they'll do it all for you. You won't have to even leave the house," he said.
He didn't realize at the time that he was dealing with a private company and the link he clicked on was a paid advertisement that came up first in a Google search.
Bebchuk got a package in the mail from PassportsOnline containing what looked like a government application that he filled out and sent back with new photos and his expired passport. A week later, he got a call from the company saying the paperwork wouldn't be done in time so he'd have to go to a Passport Canada office. As for the money he paid, Bebchuk was told unfortunately he would only be refunded $70.
"They... make it look like they're an official government website, without saying they are," said Bebchuk's son-in-law Allan Appel.
"I'm sure it's legal, but very misleading," Appel said, adding it seems those who use the service might not be able to leave their homes or would rather not. "Older people, people maybe incapacitated because they're looking to do this online."
In a statement to CBC, the federal government said Passport Canada is not affiliated with PassportOnline.ca or any other third-party service provider.
On the government's website, it warns about any third-party service providers offering passport assistance saying: "no third-party person or group can speed up the processing of your passport application" and "only passport service locations are authorized to collect passport processing fees." The forms are available to the public free of charge.
"We advise the public to be cautious of organizations that claim to offer "support" to Canadian citizens who want to apply for a passport or travel document, by selling information kits that outline application procedures, or falsely claim to be able to fast track the passport or travel document application process for an additional fee," wrote Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada spokesperson Nancy Chan.
Toronto resident Eric Glavin, 51, had a similar experience.
Like Bebchuk, the Ryerson University employee thought he was renewing his passport online. He paid $186 and received an application form in the mail. But as he was filling it out, he realized the paperwork wouldn't be complete in time unless he went to a Passport Canada office in person — so he went to one of Passport Canada's offices.
"I said 'my application is already online and I'm just going through the procedure of doing it in person'. And she was like 'No.' I said 'what do you mean' and she said 'no you're not in the system,'" said Glavin.
"I was like 'oh, that's weird'…Then she said 'okay you owe us $180.'"
Glavin said that's when he realized he hadn't been dealing with Passport Canada online, but a private company.
"I was like I'm so stupid. What was I doing? I just threw all my information out at these people and didn't even think about what kind of services they were providing or whether this was a legitimate service," said Glavin.
When he got home, he re-read all the paperwork that had been mailed to him and realized the fee wasn't for a passport renewal after all. It was for the company to act as a middle man.
"I paid for this fee which was to have the passport vetted and my application vetted in some way. And that yes, in fact, I did owe another $180 for the passport. And I was like, I had ignored all that fine print, because I just thought oh yeah, okay this is the fee, blah blah blah and just hadn't really been paying attention and then I felt really, really stupid," said Glavin.
Both Bebchuk and Glavin contacted their local Better Business Bureaus. They also called PassportOnline.ca to ask for their money back.
Glavin was told he would get $111 back, but that the company would keep $75 for the work it had done.
Bebchuk was told the same, but eventually got a full refund.
"I didn't even expect to get the $70 but maybe I disturbed something by calling Better Business Bureau and they returned my money," said Bebchuk.
"They have a good operation because people send them money. And especially seniors, seniors who rely on help. I didn't want to bother my son-in-law and say come with me to the passport office. Really and truly I'm not a needy person, I wanted to save him the trouble," said Bebchuk.
"He knows how to use a computer, he's pretty quick on the draw. We can all be fooled. You don't have to be dumb to be fooled," said Appel.
Repeated calls to PassportOnline.ca were not returned.